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October 29th, 2008

Premier and premiere / capitalizing sir / ordinal numbers in dates

by Barbara Wallraff

Mike Goronsky, of Loudonville, N.Y., writes: “I have a question regarding the use of ‘premier’ and ‘premiere’ as adjectives. Which spelling is preferred in a phrase like ‘a premier(e) episode/issue’?”

Dear Mike: Older reference books are likely to leave you with the impression that “premier” is right, and newer ones may suggest that the two spellings are interchangeable -- but the one everybody actually uses these days in your examples is “premiere.”
Time was, “premier” was an adjective and a title (as in “Premier Vladimir Putin”), and “premiere” was a noun that referred to a first performance. Then “premiere” branched out and became a verb, with sentences like “The new season of ‘30 Rock’ premiered the other day” largely taking over from “The season had its premiere.”

Because “premiere” is the noun and the verb that have to do with launches (leaving “premier,” for the most part, to mean “first in importance or quality”), it has naturally become the related adjective too. That is, a “season premiere that will premiere this week” is a “premiere episode,” not a “premier episode.”

Bill Brooks, of Allen Park, Mich., writes: “Why don’t we capitalize generic names other than Mother or Dad? For example, ‘Excuse me, sir.’ Shouldn’t it be ‘Sir’?”

Dear Bill: Actually, where and where not to capitalize words like “mother” and “dad” is tricky. The idea is to capitalize them only if you’re using them as substitutes for, or as part of, names. So you’d write “I told Mother I’d pick her up on my way home” and “I think Mother Courage is an amazing character” but “I told my mother I’d get the tickets for the play.”

As for “sir,” it can be part of a name (“Sir Paul McCartney”), but it’s never equivalent to one. You wouldn’t write “I told Sir I’d get the tickets.” In “Excuse me, sir,” the word is more like “buddy” or “pal” or “my good man” than it is like a name. That's why it should be lowercase.

Lisa Guge, of Shueyville, Iowa, writes: “I’ve noticed more and more in television and newspaper advertising that dates of events are written in the format of month, ordinal day and year, such as ‘November 2nd, 2008.’ I thought that when writing a date with the month, day and year together, the cardinal form of the day should be used.”

Dear Lisa: You’re right that “November 2,” not “2nd,” is the standard written form. We all learned that when we learned how to write and date letters. Lots of people say “November second,” rather than “November two,” though -- so it’s tempting to write the date that way.

Then, too, much professional-looking language these days comes from people who aren’t especially concerned with the fine points of English. My own Web site is a case in point. The dates in the archives of my columns, I am guiltily aware, appear as ordinals -- for instance, “November 2nd” -- because that’s the way the archiving program does them. The difference between “November 2” and “November 2nd” isn’t important -- civilization won’t collapse if the former stops being standard. All the same, I find it troubling that language standards are being set or changed by people who have no idea they’re setting standards.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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